Emails we love: The brain science edition

February 10, 2016 McKenzie Gregory


If you’ve ever sifted through our content, you already know that we’re mild-to-moderately (ok, very) obsessed with brain science and all the ways it can be applied to email marketing.

Did you know, for instance, that giving your subscribers too many buying choices can lead to indecision and lower sales (The Choice Paradox)? Or that individuals who miss out on a limited-time offer are less likely to make a purchase in the future (Inaction Inertia Effect)?

It’s fascinating stuff, so we’re constantly reading new studies and collecting fresh stats to add to our arsenal. But the thing that truly gets our hearts racing? When we see real-life marketers using those cognitive biases in the wild to get better results. So we thought we’d share these five email examples that utilize different brain science principles – geek out with us, won’t you?

(We first encountered these principles in a great resource called Cognitive Lode – visit their site, which was compiled by ribot, for more super interesting marketing psychology!)



Ann Taylor – Noble Edge Effect

Research shows that products of “caring" companies are seen as superior, which can elevate those companies’ profits (Alexander Chernev and Sean Blair, 2015). Think TOMS or Warby Parker – the "buy one, we’ll donate one to someone in need" model does wonders for boosting a brand’s success.

Of course, it only works when those efforts feel sincere. Even though acts of social responsibility are becoming more and more common, today’s consumers are also increasingly skeptical. And since it's no secret that many socially conscious marketing efforts are used solely as a PR move (McKinsey & Company), it’s even more important for you to give back in a way that feels relevant and meaningful within the context of your brand.

Here’s a great example: In this email, Ann Taylor promotes an initiative to empower young girls to take on leadership roles. It makes perfect sense for the female-oriented company and rings more authentic than gimmicky.




Madewell – Nostalgia Effect

When you consider the splash made by all the recent TV remakes, this brain science fact isn’t terribly surprising. People get excited about – and are willing to pay more for – things that bring back warm-and-fuzzy memories for them. Trends and pop culture references from the past are something that unify people; whether it’s laughing at ridiculous hairstyles from the 80s or craving a snack that you can’t get anymore, it’ll likely resonate with your audience.

Here, Madewell appeals to that sense of nostalgia by referencing the timelessness of the plaid shirt. It’s a simple move that helps them connect on a more personal level with their subscribers – and sell more plaid by promoting it within the context of its significance across different decades. 




Catbird – Center-Stage Effect

Here’s something to consider when designing your emails: When presented with a group of items, people are most likely to choose (or click) the one placed in the middle (Rodway, Schepman & Lambert, 2012). This click map of an email from Catbird is especially revealing:





Each and every click that email received was concentrated on the middle ring. So when you’re promoting merchandise or content in the body of an email, it’s a good idea to place it in the middle of a grouping.



Modcloth – Motivating-Uncertainty Effect

According to a study by Hsee C. Fisbach, people are more motivated to reach a goal with an uncertain reward. The uncertainty makes the process to get the reward feel more exciting and, as a result, makes us feel more invested. That’s why offers like this – ones that involve some sort of surprise deal – tend to do so well. We’re more intrigued by the possibility than we would be by a certain payoff. 




Chloe + Isabel – Temptation Coupling

Another study in 2013 found that people who were allowed access to audiobooks of their choice only while in the gym were significantly more likely to go work out. It's called “Temptation Coupling” – we’re more likely to do the hard stuff when it’s coupled with something desirable. That’s why free gift offers perform better as a purchase motivator than discounts: They promise a second reward you can only access by completing a purchase, whereas a simple discount keeps the final reward (your purchase) the same.

Something in us deeply desires the free tote bag, or a bonus entree, or that XXL t-shirt. So consider (like in this example from Chole + Isabel) pairing your next promotion with a free gift, and watch your conversions rise like crazy!




About the Author

McKenzie Gregory

McKenzie Gregory is a content writer on Emma’s marketing team. A Nashville native, she can be found covering all things email on the Emma blog, debating hyphenation rules, and watching obscene amounts of Netflix without a trace of shame.

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